- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

After two years pounding the Bush administration to expand ground forces, Congress in the next week or two will revisit the question of increasing the end-strength of the Army and Marines. The bill in question, S. 530, sponsored by Sens. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican and Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, and which John Kerry and Hillary Clinton have signed onto, calls for an additional 30,000 troops for the Army and 5,000 more for the Marines. House Democrats are advancing a similar bill to boost the Army by 20,000 and the Marines by 12,000, plus more special forces in all four services. Both are reminders that the need to increase our ground forces isn’t going away.

Neither bill does much to address the nuts-and-bolts objections the Bush administration and Pentagon have tabled, which emphasize the operational difficulties of expanding amid war and the need to look to military transformation to reap manpower gains. And both bills are useful Democratic cudgels against Mr. Bush. But none of that means increasing ground forces isn’t the right step in the long run. With ongoing commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the earlier we start thinking about how to get to an increase of 100,000 or more troops the better.

A look at the data on long-term American defense spending shows that our troop levels are disconcertingly low given the dramatic new responsibilities being assigned to the military. As the Congressional Budget Office’s September 2004 report shows, adjusting for 2004 dollars, the United States spends about half what it did during the Reagan years on ground forces. Back then, the Cold War stayed mostly cold and we didn’t have the war on terror, Iraq or Afghanistan to worry about — not to mention the possibility of looming crises over North Korea, Iran or the Taiwan Strait.

Even in the quietest of peacetime years, the United States has usually had more ground forces than we do now. During the “peace-dividend” period following World War II and preceding Korea, the Army’s end strength was about 700,000, compared to a half-million today. Underestimating the numbers we needed in the aftermath of major fighting in Iraq was a misjudgment. But underestimating the long-term numbers for the whole military would be more serious.

It’s a fair question what Congress can hope to accomplish by increasing an end-strength number when the Army is missing its recruiting goals and when existing burdens seem formidable enough. The short answer is that at least some S. 530 supporters probably aren’t thinking that far ahead and are content to use the bill to bash Mr. Bush over heightened ops tempos. That’s how politics works. But the farsighted answer is that S. 530 is nothing if not a prompt for military planners to start thinking about how to make permanent increases a reality.

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